THE MEN with the bad legs - the one in the rickety wheelchair and the one with the cane that looks as if it might snap under his weight - are the first to be counted.

Dewey Flynn, with the cane, doesn't mind the well-intentioned volunteer canvassers counting him as one of the city's homeless. He thanks them for the toiletries and the gift card for free pizza at Rosa's, the pizza joint at 11th and Chestnut that's gotten a lot of buzz for feeding the homeless.

But Flynn issues a stern warning from the red metal bench where he sits in his socks near the 18th Street entrance of Suburban Station, his work boots placed neatly in front of him.

"I'm not going to no shelter. No discussion," says Flynn, who turns 60 next month. "You want to discuss something, talk to me about going to some senior-citizen apartments. Don't come at me about a shelter or I'll be ready to throw hand grenades at ya."

Barry Brown, meanwhile, happily chats up volunteer Sara Frisby-Simms and roars with laughter when, reading from a survey, she asks him if he identifies as black or African-American.

"You looking at me, right?" Brown, who is black, tells Frisby-Simms, a program director at Catholic Social Services.

When she smiles and says she can't assume anything but can probably answer the question about whether he has a physical disability, he laughs again.

"I'm in a wheelchair."

Brown, 65, says he's been in a wheelchair since a construction accident 25 years ago. He's been living on the streets for more than half that time.

"No, I ain't stupid. I've been in school. I know how to speak. I got nobody to blame but myself for being out here," he says, admitting an alcohol problem. "I've had chances . . . but sometimes you need more, I guess."

Brown, who says he served in the Army, doesn't like the shelters and even if he did, he doesn't have the money to replace the ID needed to get into most programs.

It's hard to hold on to belongings on the streets, even if Brown learned how to survive on them.

"Find a hidey-hole, get some blankets underneath me, some blankets over me . . . "

When Frisby-Simms says she can do better for him, he smiles and says, "You can try."

Brown and many of the homeless are part of the city's fabric but remain mostly anonymous until moments like last week, when 300 volunteers coordinated by Project HOME hit the streets to count the city's homeless.

Collecting a point-in-time (PIT) number of homeless has been a requirement for every homeless-outreach organization that receives federal funding since 2007. In 2007, the PIT count in Philadelphia was 6,740. In 2014 it was 5,738.

To date, the 2015 PIT count is 3,327 but that does not include a final number of all Philadelphia shelters. Those numbers will be available by late February or March.

Marie Nahikian, director of the city's office of supportive housing, guessed that the 2015 numbers would be similar to 2014.

Of the 3,327, 510 homeless were unsheltered, a substantial increase from the 183 unsheltered counted on the streets in 2014. Kensington had the largest increase. The reason, Nahikian said, is likely the milder weather during this year's count; 2014 was extremely cold and more folks were in some type of shelter. They also expanded their search area into other sections of the city and several emergency rooms.

Even with the milder temperatures, many of the chronically homeless inside Suburban seemed content to answer a few questions for a little more time indoors. Sgt. Domenic Barone, one of the escorts, said that each night officers give them an option of either having them call outreach or leaving. Many choose to leave.

Linda Burton, 60, sits so still on one of the station's wooden benches, it seems as though she hopes no one will notice her. She politely answers the survey questions, but when I talk with her later, it becomes heartbreakingly obvious that the deeper truths of her life on the streets are in the long, heavy silences that follow her sometimes incomplete thoughts.

"It's not safe," she says. "The men, they get drunk and they don't know how to act . . . "

She had a job, once. Once, she says, she had a room she filled with many of the things now neatly piled into a nearby cart, including two small scarecrows. She says she doesn't know where her four kids are. Sometimes she stays with her mother in West Philly, but they don't always get along. She says she's been living on the streets on and off for the past 20 years.

"Looking back at my life, I probably should have seen that I'd end up homeless." She is silent for several beats. "But who wants to think like that?"

As the men and women inside the concourse share their stories, reasons for their homelessness emerge: chronic mental and physical illness, loss of jobs and family, alcohol and substance abuse, jail time. Some stories don't add up. Others are painfully honest.

Frisby-Simms doesn't flinch when a man tells her that Jesus doesn't want him talking to her as he stuffs newspapers down his pants. Not a hint of doubt or judgment flashes across volunteers' faces when another man can't seem to settle on which branch of the military he served or when.

"It is their reality," says Frisby-Simms.

In a corner of the concourse, a married couple tells volunteers that they'd like to go into a shelter but don't want to be separated.

"Unless it gets real cold, then you go," Sean Butler, 44, tells his wife, Quasia Barker.

"If we're going to be separated, I'm not going," says Barker, 24.

Butler says he was in the military, but ended up in prison shortly after his discharge and has had trouble finding work since. He wants a job, and a home, he says.

"I want to pay bills," he says. "I want that normal life."

Just before police officers shut down the station for the night, homeless men and women start to emerge from all corners. An older man with a tattered green rolling bag behind him, a woman who earlier had been curled up in a fetal position between two closed storefronts, a group of young people whom cops are keeping a close eye on, unsure if they are homeless or up to no good.

They walk through the doors and disappear. Moments earlier, I watched as Burton, the woman on the bench, pulled the hood of her coat tight around her face before grabbing a heavy backpack that nearly doubled her over.

"You're not going to a shelter?" I ask.

It'd probably be for only one night, she says. She doesn't think it's worth it.

In what feels like an attempt to make me feel better, she says maybe she'll go to her mom's in West Philly.

Once again, the truth is in the heavy silence that follows.

If you see someone in Philadelphia experiencing homelessness who needs help, please call the 24-Hour Homeless Outreach Hotline at 215-232-1984.

Phone: 215-854-5943

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